What does it mean to be born of water and the Spirit (John 3:5)?

John 3:5 is an oft-repeated verse from which we got the term born again. In that verse, Jesus tells Nicodemus, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God." This statement is significant not only because it comes from Jesus Himself, but also because it pertains to salvation. So, what does it truly mean to be born of water and the Spirit?

First, let’s consider the context. John 3:5 is part of a conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, a Pharisee. When Nicodemus acknowledges Jesus’ uniqueness, our Lord promptly responds, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God" (John 3:3). Nicodemus is perplexed. How can someone be born again? Would an adult get back to his mother’s womb? To this incredulous question, Jesus extends His earlier statement to being born of water and the Spirit (John 3:5).

Advocates of water baptism as a requirement for salvation often cite this verse as proof text. It seems obvious enough, they say, that Jesus is saying we must be baptized to be saved. However, one can only reach this interpretation by disregarding the context of John 3:5 and scriptural teachings on salvation as a whole.

The Bible is clear: salvation is by faith alone. As Paul affirms in Romans 3:22, "We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ. And this is true for everyone who believes, no matter who we are" (NLT). Other passages that emphasize salvation through faith alone include Ephesians 2:1–10, Galatians 2:16, and Titus 3:4–7. The conversion of the thief on the cross also refutes the notion that water baptism is required for salvation (Luke 23:40–43). Water baptism holds significance as a physical demonstration of inner transformation, but it does not save us.

The entire conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus further makes the water baptism interpretation an unconvincing one. In the same chapter, Jesus explains, "And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:14–16). There is no mention of water baptism in this explanation. So, how should we understand John 3:5?

There is little controversy regarding being born of the Spirit. This refers to the transformative work performed by the Holy Spirit in the life of a believer in Jesus. Similar to how new life enters the world through physical birth, a new life—eternal life—is born through the Spirit’s regeneration.

As for the phrase born of water, there are two viable interpretations aside from baptism. The first interpretation views born of water as a metaphor for physical birth, which takes into account the context. In John 3:3, Jesus initially states, "unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God." Nicodemus then questions, "How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?" (John 3:4). According to this perspective, Jesus’ response emphasizes the necessity of being born twice to enter the kingdom of God. This view finds support in the fact that unborn babies reside in a sac of amniotic fluid. We even use the expression "her water broke" when it’s time for birth.

The second interpretation sees being born of water as spiritual cleansing. This aligns with passages in the Old Testament, such as Ezekiel 36:25–27, which Nicodemus would have been well aware of: "I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules."

Given that Jesus expected Nicodemus to understand, this second interpretation carries as much weight as the first. According to this view, being born of water and of the Spirit are essentially the same thing: the Holy Spirit cleanses and renews the spirit of a man.

In either case, we can conclude that a second birth, cleansing, and transformation by the Spirit are necessary before someone can enter the kingdom of God. This experience is not something we earn; rather, it is made available through Jesus’ redemptive work by the undeserved grace of the Father. It is a new life to God’s glory!

Related Truth:

Is baptism necessary for salvation according to John 3:5?

What do Christians mean by saying they are born again?

What is the new birth?

What is the Truth about salvation?

Is it true that Jesus is the only way to heaven?

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